We love lists. Can you tell? So ESPN’s recent countdown of the 100 greatest players ever caught our attention. As is our wont, we decided to take our own crack at it. This is the first of many articles where we reveal our results ten players at a time.
The “worldwide leader in sports” apparently convened an expert panel and voted on thousands of head-to-head matchups. At least that’s what they disclosed. We convened a panel of two: Miller and Eric, like usual. While ESPN’s methods don’t seem very clear from the link presented here, we’re happy to tell you about ours. First we both drew up a list of 125 players based on a combination of the sorting systems we each use for ourselves and any adjustments we felt helpful. Like ESPN, we included Negro Leaguers. They fall outside the scope of our current research projects, but we took a couple shortcuts thanks to the data at Seamheads.com to help us arrive at some reasonable perspectives.
Once we each drew up our lists, we showed them to one another, averaging the rank we assigned to each player to arrive at a near-final ranking. We tweaked in a couple places, and then we had our list.
As you’ll see in our comments, Miller took an approach that emphasized parity across eras, while Eric took a more timeline-oriented approach, giving preference to recency. We’ll also comment on ESPN’s results as we go along to show you some of the hair-brained choices they made and insight about those among ours you might think of as hair-brained. Let’s get to it!
100. Roy Halladay (ESPN Rank: NR)
ERIC: It was down to him or Carl Hubbell. Much as I like the great screwballer of yore, I’m more convinced by Halladay’s run as the league’s best and most durable hurler before the mini offensive ice age of the 2010s.
99. Mariano Rivera (ESPN Rank: 49)
MILLER: If I’m putting together a team to compete in the World Series in the last 40 years, he’d be higher. Looked at another way, this is a pretty great ranking for someone who threw fewer career innings than Pud Galvin logged in 1883 and 1884.
98. Johnny Mize (ESPN Rank: NR)
MILLER: A not very meaningful factoid is that Mize has more 6-win years (8) by my reckoning than anyone who never had an 8-win year.
97. John Smoltz (ESPN Rank: 86)
MILLER: In what you’ll see as a recurring pattern problem, the good folks at ESPN rank guys you and your dad (but mainly you) have seen higher than we do. Hey, ESPN is a mainstream organization, not one that’s necessarily expert in all things baseball.
ERIC: Whereas we sit as far from the mainstream as you can get without being a birther/vapor trails/911 truth collective, and we think we’re experts in many things baseball. [Editors note: But, sadly, we aren’t experts.]
96. Miguel Cabrera (ESPN Rank: 39)
ERIC: A little future-casting drove my vote for Cabrera. At this very second, he’s not quite a top 100 player, but given his durability and how well his skills have held up, I’m comfortable pushing my ranking a little higher.
95. Mickey Cochrane (ESPN Rank: NR)
MILLER: It’s hard to know exactly where to rank catchers because they’re so different. But it seems to make semse to have seven, eight, or nine. We have nine. The last one should probably rank around here.
94. Billy Hamilton (ESPN Rank: NR)
ERIC: Easily one of baseball’s least written about superstars. He’s like Rickey with less power and a career half as long.
93. Ron Santo (ESPN Rank: NR)
MILLER: In my “glass half full” days, I think about guys like Santo and Bert Blyleven and think everything is going to be just fine for supporters of Tim Raines. Since it’s 2016, I want everything to happen now. Plus, I’m from the school that any player who deserves it deserves it on the first ballot. Santo is different. He passed away before he got in. As far as justice, it’s been served now. And I think it will for some SABR darlings in the coming years.
92. Frank Thomas (ESPN Rank: 66)
ERIC: The sheer size of Frank Thomas stunned me. I first saw him on a highlights reel hitting some monstrous homer, and he looked so tall, so damned broad, and so thick. Just this absolutely massive human being, freakishly packed with muscles. He redefined what a ballplayer could look like. Manute Bol of the NBA gave me the same reaction except that he looked like a giant walking stick rather than a 2001-style monolith. Oh, and Thomas could really hit. But you knew that.
91. Kevin Brown (ESPN Rank: NR)
ERIC: At least he gets his due from us. The BBWAA couldn’t be bothered to look beyond his surliness and his Mitchel Report mention to see a great pitcher.
THE WORLDWIDE LEADER IN SPORTS’ 100–91
100. Al Simmons
99. Mike Piazza
98. Willie Stargell
97. Pete Alexander
96. Jeff Bagwell
95. Ryne Sandberg
94. Carl Hubbell
93. Felix Hernandez
92. Adrian Beltre
91. Curt Schilling
ERIC: Several of these guys appeared just beyond 100 for us. But in a couple cases we don’t get it. Alex is probably 60–80 spots too low, Stargell about as many too high.
MILLER: I wonder how many of the ESPN contributors have Hall votes and don’t select Schilling. Their list is so heavy on guys who their readers have heard of and guys for whom they happened to find a black and white photo. It’s a complete joke that they rank the fourth or fifth best pitcher ever in the same group as a pitcher (Felix Hernandez) who has only twice ranked in the top-10 in any individual season BBREF’s pitcher WAR.
Check back on Monday for players 90 to 81.